Billie Holiday biographer is singing the blues Jazz singer actually born in Philly, writer contends.

May 24, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

A new biography of Billie Holiday concludes that the great jazz singer Baltimore celebrates as a hometown cultural icon was actually born in Philadelphia.

The biographer, Robert O'Meally, an English and American studies professor at Barnard College in New York City, said he was surprised and horrified when he found Holiday was not born in Baltimore.

A self-styled jazz fanatic who grew up in Washington, O'Meally considered Holiday one of a Pantheon of more or less local great ones that included Duke Ellington, Chick Webb and Eubie Blake.

"The only way I can console myself," O'Meally said during a phone interview, "is in knowing that it's a fact."

His book due out in August is called "Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday." Lady Day was the title conferred on Holiday by the great tenorman Lester Young, who backed her on some of the finest performances in jazz.

O'Meally based his conclusion basically on records from the House of the Good Shepherd, then a Catholic home for black girls at Calverton Avenue and Franklin Street.

"When she was registered at the Good Shepherd House," O'Meally said, "her mother filled out a form that said her daughter was born in Philadelphia. That's the source I found myself relying on."

Holiday was baptized at Good Shepherd and, O'Meally said, the baptismal certificate also lists her birthplace as Philadelphia.

O'Meally said he has photocopies of these documents.

Her passport later listed her birthplace as Philadelphia, according to O'Meally. He looked at a court hearing in Philadelphia which arose because she had gone overseas without notifying her parole board. She'd been arrested more than once on drug charges in Philadelphia.

She testified she always said she was from Baltimore, but she agreed that she was born in Philadelphia as her passport said. The passport had been obtained by her manager who submitted the documents from Good Shepherd as evidence of her birthplace.

Holiday was about 10 years old when she was sent to Good Shepherd, which still exists as the Good Shepherd Center in Halethorpe, with programs for adolescent girls with emotional and behavioral problems.

O'Meally said court records show Holiday was on the streets with no apparent guardian. He doesn't think she was neglected; her mother was scrambling to make a living for her daughter and herself. Holiday remained close to her mother as long as she lived.

In her autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues," written in 1956 with William F. Dufty, Holiday said she was taken into custody after she was raped by a much older man, then sent to Good Shepherd.

The autobiography also said she was born in a Baltimore hospital. She said her mother scrubbed floors and waited on patients in exchange for care during her own delivery.

"Lady Sings the Blues" begins with an opening line famous in jazz memoirs: "Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when I was born. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three."

Holiday was born Eleonora Fagan. Her mother's name was Sadie Fagan. Her father was Clarence Holiday, later a guitar player in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra and perhaps McKinney's Cotton Pickers.

But Sadie Fagan's tombstone in St. Raymond's Cemetery in New York says she was born in 1896 (and died in 1946), O'Meally said. Which would have made her 19 when Holiday was born April 7, 1915. And she and Clarence Holiday were never married.

O'Meally believes Sadie Fagan slipped away to Philadelphia to deliver her daughter because of the disapproval from her family because she was pregnant without being married.

No record of Holiday's birth was found in a search done by the Maryland State Archives this week, but then again none was found by searchers at Philadelphia's archives.

And, although "Lady Sings the Blues" has been the accepted version of Holiday's life, its accuracy has often been questioned. Holiday bragged she never read the book and never worked on it, O'Meally said. Another biography, John Chilton's "Billie's Blues," is essentially an account of her adult years as singer from 1933 to 1959.

Many of the documents O'Meally relied on were found by Linda Kuehl, an New York University English professor he described as "a driven research person." Kuehl interviewed scores of persons and accumulated her own archive of photographs, letters, and clippings from black newspapers.

Kuehl died before she could complete a book. O'Meally said he corroborated her evidence and interviewed dozens of people himself.

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